Kotaku's Critique of Racism in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles Misses the Mark - ArticlePaul Broussard , posted on 18 September 2021 / 1,941 Views
If you’ve watched the movie Django Unchained, you’re likely well aware of the effects that a fictional piece of media can have if it puts in effort to accurately capture the societal flaws and issues of the setting's day and age. Even if you haven’t watched it before, you may be at least familiar with the movie as a powerful depiction of racism in pre-emancipation America. The story of Django and Schultz would have lost most, if not all, of its impact if it did not portray the United States - and its horrendous treatment of African Americans - as it was during that time. That meant being faithful to the actions and words of the day; even racially charged words that still carry plenty of weight in the modern era. Even if those words by themselves are offensive, we understand that they are necessary inclusions to accurately portray the reality of the era, and failing to do so would be whitewashing the story.
Or, at least, most of us did. Somewhat predictably, Django Unchained's release resulted in a fair amount of pearl-clutching from individuals shocked that such racially charged words would be put on the big screen at all. A number of high profile outlets and a sizable chunk of individuals on social media were ultimately unable to get past the mere presence of the depiction of racism as itself problematic. While these voices were, ultimately, in the minority, it speaks to a problem of being unable to face hard truths to examine our past mistakes.
And, as the reception to The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles demonstrates, history is nothing if not predictable. The most recent and egregious example of this can be found in Kotaku’s review of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s set in Victorian era Britain and revolves around a Japanese exchange student, Naruhodo Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke travels from Japan to London along with his legal assistant, Susato Mikotoba, and finds himself suddenly thrust into the role of a fully-fledged defense attorney, having to defend an entourage of individuals accused of murder in Britain’s highest court.
There are quite a few things to admire about Britain in the late 1800s, from scientific progress, to advances in communication and medicine, to developments in travel. But one area that Britain (and much of the world) struggled in was xenophobia. Victorian era Britain was very xenophobic, especially towards non-Western societies, which were often viewed as backwards or underdeveloped. Great Ace Attorney attempts to capture this; Ryunosuke often finds himself dismissed as being an uneducated Japanese boy, or someone who can’t handle his station because of his nationality. It even winds up serving as a significant plot point for one of the major British characters later on in the story.
And yet, the reviewer at Kotaku views this accurate depiction of the very real problems Britain had at the time as problematic. To quote the reviewer: “There is a startling amount of racism in this game. If you disregard the fact the series’ main concept is solving brutal murders, Ace Attorney games are pretty wholesome. It was truly shocking, to the point of distraction, to see all the anti-Asian racism casually bandied about.”
Opinions are certainly subjective. As a reviewer here myself, I know there are plenty of times when I don’t see eye to eye with readers, and even other writers. But I'd argue this drifts into the realm of unfair and perhaps downright silly criticism. Setting aside the statement claiming that Ace Attorney, a series that tackles issues such as depression, suicide, revenge, corruption, murder, and more, has always been very wholesome, this is one of the most off-the-mark critiques I've seen recently.
For what it's worth, the author does admit that the game is trying to capture a realistic depiction of Britain at the time. They also note, however, that “the amount of racism the game uses in order to be 'historically accurate' is a little over the top considering nothing else in this game has any claims to accuracy.” Which I would argue is a claim that simply doesn't hold water. Depictions of serious issues don’t suddenly become less valid because the story as a whole is not perfectly realistic elsewhere. Django Unchained’s horrific depictions of racism in the US are not suddenly undermined because the end leans in heavily towards some unrealistic action set pieces. And this holds especially true for games, which will almost certainly never abide by anything close to perfect realism, because interesting game mechanics often require a significant departure from reality.
What’s perhaps stranger is that the author says this about a story written by Japanese individuals. Perhaps this claim would hold some credibility if the story were written by a person who wasn’t already keenly aware of the relevant social impacts, but this is a narrative written by descendants of those who experienced xenophobia like this first hand. If there was literally anyone to write this story, it would be a Japanese development team. Shu Takumi and co did a fantastic job with it.
Get past those arguments and we can see this critique for what it really is: the author dislikes the realistic portrayal of xenophobia because it makes them feel uncomfortable. They essentially admit as much by saying that if a couple of characters they liked had engaged in similar xenophobia, they would have stopped playing. And that is probably the truly concerning part of all this; as viewers, some of us may not have progressed to the point where we can handle things that make us feel uncomfortable. We can’t grapple with truly difficult or challenging concepts that hit close to home because they make us face realities we’d rather not be reminded of. This is a mindset that prefers to just bury its head in the sand rather than be challenged by the regrettable history we all share.
While this is thankfully, as far as I can tell, the only major games outlet to publish a piece on it, the author is far from the only person to share this outlook. Plenty of voices on social media have expressed similar views, with some going so far as to harass members of the development and localization teams on Twitter. Besides how childish this is, it demonstrates the same, silly way of thinking; an inability to even be willing to confront hard truths.
At some level, complaining about social media reactions is silly. The nature of the internet guarantees there will inevitably be ludicrous takes, many by people just looking to get a reaction. But I’d posit that this review, and these people, aren’t looking to get a rise out of readers. They’re genuinely expressing what they believe. A large portion of the gaming (and film) community just refuses to acknowledge something that makes them uncomfortable. Hopefully, like the many of the characters in Great Ace Attorney who realize their initial assumptions about Ryunosuke were wrong, we as a medium will also grow out of this and be ready to tackle challenging topics more consistently.